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Cracking the Tax Code: Bringing Complexity to Life

By Max Chilkov

Jackie Kennedy, James Gandolfini

According to Williamson, Jackie Kennedy's "elegant" will made good use of tax exemptions to maintain the family wealth, while Gandolfini's "disastrous" will did not and cost the family dearly.

Most people don't get too excited about the U.S. tax code, but Professor Donald Williamson isn't one of them.

The director of the MS in Taxation Program brings a talent for teaching and professional experience to engage and inspire his students.

What sets Williamson apart is his way of making the law approachable. By applying the code to popular culture and celebrities, he provides a familiar context to a complex subject.

Teaching Tax

For the past 25 years, Williamson has taught a variety of tax related courses, applying his time at the National Tax Practice Office of KPMG to developing unique course materials. Williamson, who is also executive director of the Kogod Tax Center, has seen the constant evolution of the business world with one exception: the approach to the tax code.

"The particular rules [of the tax code] have changed…there is more law that is a lot more complex."

Even with constantly evolving tax law, Williamson's methods have remained the same.

Applying the Code

The growing intricacy of tax law hasn't caused Williamson to deviate from his teaching style. He believes hands-on applications are the most effective way for students to understand the complications of the tax code.

In his graduate-level Estate and Financial Family Planning course, Williamson's students compare Jackie Kennedy's will to James Gandolfini's and analyze their tax implications.

Kennedy's will, which Williamson labels "elegant," effectively used tax exemptions to maintain the family's wealth and limit liability. In contrast, Gandolfini's "disastrous" will demonstrated inefficient wealth transfer, a result of exceeding exemption limits, and left the majority of his $70 million estate subject to a 55 percent death tax rate.

"We study sections of the code and apply them to real world situations," he said.

Recently, Williamson's class viewed the film Black Widow, the story of a woman who marries wealthy men and kills them for their money, and analyzed the tax implications of each inheritance.

Underlying his methods, Williamson educates students on one simple principle: how to make family wealth more tax efficient.

Estate taxes can have a massive impact on a family's inheritance, according to Williamson. Failure to understand the code and maximize exemptions can have drastic consequences, particularly when large inheritances are at stake.

Reading Between the Code

Williamson's wide range of experiences has also shown him the personal dimensions of the field.

"There is an art to communicating the softer side of the business," he said. "How do you communicate what someone wants to do with their wealth?"

Ultimately, Williamson's goals extend to more than just teaching his students to recite the tax code. Of the many of the challenges he's faced, overcoming misconceptions regarding tax law has been the toughest.

"Taxation is not the dismal science of the 21st century," Williamson said. "Nothing could be further from the truth."

Developing the Program

Williamson has helped turn Kogod's MS in Taxation program into one of the nation's elite. Most recently, Tax Talent, an online resource catered to tax professionals, ranked it No. 8 in the country. Williamson cites a variety of factors that have contributed to its success.

He believes motivated students, along with an engaged faculty, set the program apart. To complement these strengths, Washington's location can't be beat.

"Access to D.C. offices and holding courses where the laws [that we study] are made is invaluable."